One of the dirty secrets about streaming live TV services like PS Vue and Hulu TV is that in many cases you’re paying the same amount of money as you would for basic cable. The main difference, besides the benefit of not dealing with a godforsaken cable company, is the crazy monthly fees local operators like to charge for their hardware—often $8 to $12 a month. But Plex, a popular video app that lets you easily share your entire video library to practically any device you want, just added support for streaming live TV. Which means that with a little investment, you can escape most of those rental fees for good. I tried it, and I’m just about ready to get rid of that cable box forever.
Plex works sort of like Netflix for your own library of media. You put all your films, TV shows, and home movies on a hard drive, point the Plex server software at the files, and then enjoy watching them via the Plex client software which is available for many smart TV platforms, set-top boxes, and every kind of mobile device.
There are two big problems with Plex. The first is that compared to other options, it’s kind of a pain in the ass to set up. That hurdle is surmountable, but what’s really tough is legally filling Plex up with media. For everyone who is ripping DVDs to put on their Plex server, there are others using torrents or downloading potentially illegal streams. Last September, Plex took a big stride forward by launching a DVR service that allows anyone with a TV tuner made by HDHomeRun to record television directly to their Plex server.
A HDHomeRun TV tuner is a little black box cord-shavers can use in lieu of a full cable box. You rent a CableCard from your TV provider for a nominal fee (usually $1-2 a month), plug it into the HDHomeRun and then connect the tuner to your network. Plex instantly sees it and provides you with all your channels. A box for over-the-air TV costs $80. The cable-compatible costs $130.
It is a neat feature, but it has often felt more like a proof of concept than a genuinely useful DVR. It’s a bit slow, and often the media you record is downloaded in files too large to be practical for maintaining a multimedia server.
In the latest build of Plex, the server can actually automatically convert the media, resolving this problem. More importantly, you get now watch live TV via a feature called, strangely enough, Live TV. Now my dad, down in Texas, can log into my Plex server to watch New York baseball, or I can catch the finale of The Americans while sitting in a bar in downtown Brooklyn. Many cordcutting live TV services don’t offer that kind of freedom—locking you into a specific local viewing area and not allowing you to catch up on your shows when you’re far from home.
Setting up Live TV on Plex is as easy as setting up the DVR. I simply plugged the HDHomeRun in, connected it to the same network as my Plex server, and watched the videos load up. Choosing media on Live TV via Plex is as simple as choosing media normally on Plex. Just find what you want to watch and hit enter.
Plex shows each program available for viewing as its own cool little movie poster. It’s lovely to look at, but the lack of a traditional TV guide view makes it difficult to navigate when you have more than a few channels to go through. Trying to find something to watch with the 130 channels I subscribe to via cable can border on nightmarish.
But I’ve got to admit, I’m okay dealing with the hassle of a TV tuner and a Plex server, because I’ve escaped the yoke of the monthly cable box rental fee. It costs $12 a month for me to have a single DVR box through Spectrum—so $144 per year. Using the new Plex functionality I can just spend $130 on a HDHomeRun Prime unit and $1 a month on a CableCard from Spectrum (HDHomeRun has its own DVR software solution, but it isn’t anywhere near as elegant or easy to use). That’s $142 in the first year and just $12 for every year afterwards. Besides paying for itself in just a year, the HDHomeRun option also gives me the ability to watch TV anywhere in the world that I have internet access—something that’s just not doable with Spectrum’s setup.
Live TV on Plex is currently available to subscribers of the $5 per month Plex Pass service. The feature is on iOS and Nvidia Shield Plex clients, but will be made available to other clients very soon. In addition Plex has also added support for multiple other TV tuners besides HDHomeRun, including any TV tuner that currently works with Windows.